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What is the Controversy About Smoking in Public Places?

By Troy Holmes
Updated May 17, 2024
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Smoking has become a controversial topic in recent years. This is especially prevalent in shared public environments. Smoking in public places is frowned upon because of the inherent health risks that come with inhaling smoke. Secondhand smoke is made up of toxic chemicals that are exhaled in the air from smokers. This smoke has the same lethal side effects as smoking.

Smoking in restaurants has been a source of complaint by non-smokers for many years. Restaurant owners have responded by offering special smoking areas. These areas were typically sealed off from non-smoking patrons. In recent years, full smoking bans have been implemented in many public places in the United States.

A cigarette smoker typically smells like burnt ashes. This is because smoke lingers on the clothing and hair of smokers for many hours after smoking. Some non-smokers find the odor offensive and prefer to not smell like cigarettes. This is a common complaint regarding smoking in public places. In the past smoking was common in all public areas including restaurants, malls and airplanes. This caused non-smokers to share in the ash smell of smokers.

In the United States, smoking has been banned in most restaurants, hospitals, and work environments. This ban went into place in during the last decade. While many states have enacted statewide public bans, the United States federal government has not declared this to be a national standard.

Smoking has been banned on commercial airplanes for many years. This was based on the public outcry and health hazards that come from secondhand smoke. Smoking on planes typically caused most passengers to smell like smoke when they departed from the flight.

Smoking is an addiction that carries serious health risks. Studies show that smoking can cause cancer and death. Public sentiment has generally evolved to believe this health risk should not be shared with children, or other non-smokers. Smoking is a personal choice but smoking in public places has a shared impact.

Smoking bans are not limited to the United States. Many countries across the world have instituted rules on smoking in public places. These areas typically include workplaces, bars, and hospitals.

Many years ago smoking was considered a normal pastime. It was common to see smoking advertisement that focused on children and young adults. Over the last few years, smoking has become less socially acceptable. This is because doctors have now proven this habit causes unnecessary health risks, which should not be shared with non-smokers.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By mssl — On Jul 19, 2014

I'm a smoker. Across my adult life of several decades, I have tried to be a considerate one, smoking outside, never leaving cigarette butts anywhere, careful to avoid locations with kids, etc.

During this time, I have never owned a car. I have lived a frugal life using much less energy than most people. I have paid more for a residence so I can walk to work. I've never had a fireplace or done charcoal broiling outside or even used park facilities for similar cooking.

I was against US participation in the VN War and against the invasion of Iraq and nation-building in Afghanistan and voted that way, and I also vote against the interests of those who favor fossil fuels over less polluting energy. Thus, among my other choices, my political ones were against various serious forms of air pollution by weapons and fuel choices.

I have also never produced children. That means I have contributed nothing to overpopulation, the most serious source of pollution. I have never caused a need for products for babies and kids of which the manufacture causes significant pollution (Pampers, plastic toys, etc.), and I will not indirectly cause any pollution after I die, but every biological parent will do so.

The fact is, that, if you produced even one child and took that child once by plane to Disneyland in Florida from New York, the amount of air pollution each one of you would be responsible for just one way would be more than I could have produced by chain-smoking from the age of 18 to the age of 95 -- and I'm not a chain-smoker.

I was deeply sympathetic to non-smokers for many years. But two things finally made me draw a line.

Walking down to my local shopping area with an unlit cigarette in hand, I encountered several people walking in my direction who saw the cigarette and coughed. I began to test my hypothesis, repeating this walk. Over and over, people coughed upon seeing an unlit cigarette. Who is more dangerous, who is more pitiful, a smoker or an adult who can't tell the difference between a lit and an unlit cigarette?

Then, Congress actually contemplated not allowing the sale of cigarettes at PXs because they were bad for the health of soldiers -- this while sending them unnecessarily to Iraq, where they lost their limbs and sometimes their faces and, thanks to Quinium, their minds.

I'm tired of anti-smokers now. They're usually people paid over $30,000 a year at sit-down jobs requiring no physical labor. If they had stand-up jobs involving physical labor and serious continuous pain for which no MD was willing to prescribe a decent painkiller, as the latter would be "addictive," they would shut up in a month.

By anon346532 — On Aug 29, 2013

If you don't like the smoke, then don't go in. we smokers should be able to smoke a cigarette or cigar before or after a meal in a restaurant.

By anon342612 — On Jul 22, 2013

I am in total agreement with the ban on smoking inside in public areas. Smoking however, is not illegal in itself. Come on people, pushing for a ban outside as well is really taking it too far and is very selfish. You can't have it all your own way.

I hear none of you mentioning the carbon monoxide poison you all inhale from vehicle exhaust fumes which is far far more dangerous than tobacco smoke outside. Please have a heart and allow us some peace outside.

By amypollick — On Jun 18, 2012

@anon275453: I'm a non-smoker, non-drinker, and I agree with you on most of your points.

Smoking can cause health problems in those who have to breathe secondhand smoke, but I agree that banning it parking lots is silly, too. I am not interested in breathing cigarette smoke, but I equally support banning the consumption of alcohol in places like a mall.

I've never heard of someone killing someone while behind the wheel because he had too much to smoke (regular cigarettes, obviously). I've never heard of people missing work and spending all their money because of cigarettes.

There's no question that smoking is tremendously unhealthy, and dying from its side effects is a *bad* way to go, but it's equally without question that alcohol is at the root of more vehicle fatalities, more domestic violence and more divorces than cigarettes ever will be.

By anon275453 — On Jun 18, 2012

All of you preachers who are so worried about public health, and using it as your arguments to support smoking bans, I have a question for you: Ever hear of the highly destructive substance that is far worse than any dangers presented by cigarettes called alcohol? Yeah, I touched a nerve with you non-smokers didn't I? Your smoking ban is nonsense outdoors. Indoors, I totally support no smoking, but outside in a parking lot? The same parking lot that houses the cars the drunks get into? The same cars that pour far more deadly chemicals into the air than secondhand smoke does?

All of you who support outdoor smoking bans should be ashamed of yourselves. Address alcohol first (yes, at the shopping mall restaurants, too) before you address smokers because I've got news for you righteous non-thinkers: booze is far more dangerous to our society than some guy smoking a cigarette in the parking lot could ever be.

You should all be ashamed in wasting voters', politicians', and taxpayers' time and money even discussing this supposed "public health concern" that smoking supposedly causes all the while ignoring (conveniently) your own habits that we smokers might not like, like you drunks killing people on our roads. It's shameful, one-sided and ignorant. Alcohol, folks -- alcohol.

Perhaps we smokers should start an anti-alcohol campaign! Ban it at the mall so no one can drive home from said mall drunk. Ban the ads on TV so our children stop seeing booze glorified in front of their eyes. If everyone in this country smoked instead of drank booze, you all damn well know society's "health" would be in better shape – and there'd be a lot more innocents alive, too

Smoking predominately hurts the user. Booze hurts us all! And I don't drink the poison like most of you do. You should be happy. It's one more smoking sober person on the road with your kid on Saturday night. Think before you vote and spout off against smokers, people! You are wrong.

By Monika — On Oct 25, 2011

@Azuza - I agree with you. I actually think cigarettes should be outlawed. Everyone knows they cause cancer, so let's get rid of them!

However, I know a few people who claim smoking bans infringe on our civil rights. Apparently it's just another example of "big government" over-regulating the world.

Personally, I think regulations like this are necessary for the overall health of our citizens. I'm not in favor of over-regulation-I'm in favor of just enough regulation. And I think smoking bans are a great example of this.

By Azuza — On Oct 24, 2011

I feel really strongly about this issue. One of my aunts passed away from lung cancer, but she'd never smoked a day in her life! She had worked in smoky environments for many years. Also, my grandma has emphysema, and she's never smoked either! Again, she worked in smokey office buildings.

I was a bartender for quite a few years, and I live somewhere with a smoking ban. A lot of people whined and complained about it before it happened, saying it would affect our business. But it didn't! In fact, after the ban took effect even customers who were smokers said they liked it. I guess even if you smoke, sitting in a bar that is clogged with smoke isn't that pleasant!

Seriously, I know this is dramatic, but one of the happiest days of my working life was watching the bar I worked at get rid of the ashtrays the day before the ban took effect. It was a great day!

By SarahSon — On Oct 23, 2011

I have a friend who works in a bar and he thought they would really lose a lot of business when they were not allowed to smoke in there anymore.

There was quite a controversy about it and I think most of their customers were smokers so I could see how this would concern him.

Since it is something that affected all the smokers equally, and they can't smoke in any bars in our state, they didn't lose the business they thought they would.

If only certain bars had been singled out, then it probably would have made more of an impact on their business.

By myharley — On Oct 23, 2011

I have never been a smoker so am very thankful for the recent changes when it comes to smoking in public places.

I remember working in an office area where there were a few people who smoked all day long. It seemed like there was a thick layer of smoke that hung over the entire office and never circulated around.

Since a lot of studies talk about how bad secondhand smoke is for you, I was glad when they changed their policies.

I was also reminded of this on a recent airline flight where they had the no smoking signs above the seats. Now it is hard to imagine that smokers were allowed to smoke in such a confined area.

By aLFredo — On Oct 22, 2011

In my city there is no smoking in all public places law. I am not sure how controversial it is because I none of my friends smoke.

However, I did find it interesting that a bar that a friend of mine plays music is a cigar bar and has managed to wiggle around the law by getting a literal exhaust system put in.

But, not surprisingly, it is still smoky and my friend actually has difficulty in getting his friends to come there to hear him play because of the smoky atmosphere.

However, the bar has quite a few loyal customers as they love to smoke and they actually sell cigars at the bar so they definitely cater to a niche market.

I guess time will tell if there is enough strong smoker support to keep the cigar bar in business.

By seag47 — On Oct 22, 2011

I think it’s weird that smoking is banned in bars but not in casinos. In my state, all places of business are smoke-free except these establishments.

I recently went to a casino for a concert and to eat at the buffet. I had to walk past all the slot machines, and the strong smell of smoke hit me. It shocked me at first, because I had come to expect the inside of businesses to be smoke-free.

I can handle a little bit of secondhand smoke, but this was overwhelming. Probably over half of the people gambling were puffing away, and it was the most intense cloud of smoke I have ever inhaled.

I guess the casinos want to keep their customer happy so that they will pour their money into the machines. If they don’t have to leave to go smoke a cigarette, they will probably spend more money by staying at a machine longer.

By Perdido — On Oct 22, 2011

@StarJo - Some bars in my town do have separate areas shut off from the main building just for their smoking customers. This was a wise decision on their part, because all the regulars smoke.

The rooms are generally part of an outdoor patio or balcony. They are generally colder in the winter and warmer in the summer, because they are mostly open to the outdoors. This is not an issue for people walking by the bars, though, because the smoking areas are always facing away from the street.

Though not as comfortable as the indoors, at least these rooms allow smokers to get their fix without leaving the establishment. They can take their drinks with them, or they can smoke quickly and go back inside to enjoy their drinks.

By StarJo — On Oct 21, 2011

I think that bars should have a separate room for smokers that is shut off from the rest of the building. I know lots of people who just have to smoke when they drink, and the ban on smoking in bars has outraged them.

I don’t smoke, and I enjoy going to the bar without getting my lungs full of toxins. However, I don’t see why they couldn’t have their own room.

Many of my smoker friends just stay home now instead of going out for a drink. They say not being able to smoke takes all the fun out of drinking and socializing there.

By cloudel — On Oct 20, 2011

@ddljohn - I agree with you. I have never been bothered by walking past someone who is smoking and catching a whiff of their smoke.

When workplaces ban smoking even outside in the parking lot, they force their workers to sneak around. When my workplace banned smoking outside the building, some people starting smoking in the restroom.

You could always smell it when they came out. I really would have preferred that they smoke just outside the back door. That way, the smoke wouldn’t be trapped inside the building.

The company went so far as to ban sales representatives from smoking in their own cars while going to visit clients. This was just too much.

By discographer — On Oct 20, 2011

I don't think that there needs to be a controversy about smoking in public places. I have asthma and for years, I couldn't go to many public places because people would smoke there which could trigger an asthma attack.

I am so happy that smoking is no longer allowed in public places. Smoking is bad for us anyway, it damages everyone's health, both the smoker's and those around him or her. The public space should be a space where everyone can remain in comfortably. Smokers might think that this is unfair to them, but it's not. There are more non-smokers in society than there are smokers so majority rules.

By serenesurface — On Oct 19, 2011

@ddljohn-- I agree with you. The funny thing about this ban is that it doesn't apply to shops where more than 75% of the profits come from tobacco. There is a hookah bar in my town which is now the only public place where people can smoke. I guess, at the end of the day, the state still cares about businesses and can adjust the ban for them.

But I think that socially, this might end up having a sort of segregation effect. I know that it was previously that way with restaurants but smokers and non-smokers were still together under the same roof. Now, they won't be.

By ddljohn — On Oct 19, 2011

I'm a non-smoker and I don't enjoy second-hand smoke either. I also don't want to be somewhere that's filled with cigarette smoke. At the same time though, I think that some states have taken the smoking ban too far.

Smoking in public places was recently banned in our state and it has had a huge impact on my campus as there are quite many students who smoke. The other day, I saw some graduate students taking a twenty minute walk to be able to smoke. They are not even allowed to smoke at outside seating areas of cafes and restaurants.

I kind of felt bad for them after seeing this because I don't have a problem with them smoking in open air. The smoke really doesn't affect me outside. I think smoking should only be banned in closed public spaces, not open ones.

By Sara007 — On Oct 18, 2011

I have young kids and second hand smoking in public places is a big issue for me. I think that there should be no smoking in public places geared to kids because the smoke is very risky for children.

On that note, I also think we need to do a lot more about pollution in general to improve our air. I actually think smoking gets a lot of attention because it is something that seems easier to control.

Fining people for smoking in a public square is a much easier way to look proactive then making moves against large corporations who pollute. It seems to me that in many ways smokers have been a bit of a scapegoat. Does anyone else think smokers have been unfairly singled out for polluting the air?

By manykitties2 — On Oct 18, 2011

I am really glad that there is a movement to stop smoking in public places. I think that just because someone has a bad habit, they shouldn't be able to make everyone around them suffer. On that note though, not all public places should be treated equally.

I have no problem with smokers in general, but I think they need to have their own spaces. If you want a smoker's lounge, great. I won't go there.

There are too many smoking effects for smokers to be able to smoke where they want, but I think that outside places should be fine.

I know in my city there is a stupid rule that they can't smoke on bus terminal property. It's ridiculous because the buses are idling exhaust in your face! What is a little smoke outside going to do in comparison to that?

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